The EU risks losing out on farming’s genomic reboot

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The writer is a science commentator

Witchweed, a parasitic plant, is scarier than any fictional triffid. It feasts on sorghum — a crop used across Africa for food, construction and industrial processing — by clinging to its roots and sucking away water and nutrients.

Harmful species of witchweed, a genus more formally known as Striga, blight the majority of farmland across the continent, costing farmers around $7bn a year in lost yields. Trap crops, planted to lure pests away, and herbicides are viewed as impractical or somewhat ineffective for smallholders.

Now, researchers in Kenya are using the relatively cheap and accessible gene-editing tool Crispr to create new varieties of Striga-resistant sorghum. Some of their work was showcased earlier this month at the Plant and Animal Genome Conference in San Diego.

While some richer nations dither over how to deal with these advances, scientists in lower and middle income countries are seizing the opportunity to give agriculture a targeted genomic reboot. “It is a great testament to their ingenuity, combined with the acceptance that something needs to be done quickly, that these early developers of gene-editing are not in the resource-rich [global] north,” says Johnathan Napier, a plant biotechnologist at the UK-based agricultural institution Rothamsted Research. In a world where food security can never be taken for granted, that sense of urgency needs to spread.

The gene-edited sorghum project is inspired by nature — specifically by wild varieties of the staple that carry genetic mutations conferring resistance to Striga. Steven Runo, a molecular biologist from Kenyatta University in Nairobi, is using Crispr to mimic these useful mutations to create resilient seeds, with field trials planned for this year. Scientists at other Nairobi institutes are using the technique to develop disease-resistant maize and fungal-resistant groundnuts. 

The technology may transform agriculture in LMICs beyond the genomic level: local farmers seem happy, Runo told the journal Nature, to source seeds from regional researchers rather than multinationals. The global spread of gene-editing technology may end up dispersing the commercial power currently concentrated in corporate labs — and raises the prospect of African-grown gene-edited crops being sold beyond the continent.

Although much of Runo’s work is funded by American agencies, Kenya is benefiting from a government decision in 2022 to regard gene-edited crops as conventionally bred rather than genetically modified organisms and therefore exempt from stricter regulation.

The similarity between gene-editing and traditional breeding has given rise to the term “precision-bred organism (PBO)”, because Crispr and other gene-editing techniques can create varieties achievable through generations of crossbreeding. Nigeria and Malawi have similar policies to Kenya; Argentina, Brazil, China and the US are among countries that are also permissive towards gene-edited crops.

The UK has also opted for light-touch regulation since leaving the EU. Last year parliament passed a law permitting precision breeding (in England only) and, crucially, exempting it from the onerous EU licensing and testing strictures governing GMOs.

The looser framework covers plants and animals (excluding humans), created using biotechnology featuring genomes that could have arisen naturally or through traditional breeding. The deregulation therefore does not apply to transgenic organisms, which incorporate genes from foreign species and rightly demand greater long-term scrutiny.

EU ministers recognise that treating all genetic technology in the same restrictive way is outdated and voted earlier this month to change the rules, but green-lighting PBOs faces opposition from consumer and environmental advocacy groups, as well as the organic food lobby. All 27 member states would need to approve a wide-ranging reset covering research, field trials, patents and food labelling — a tall order.

The UK, Napier believes, now has a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build a whole new value chain based around [PBOs] but the government needs to be much bolder . . . to take advantage”.

Refining and expanding this technology seems a sensible insurance policy in uncertain times. Even in well-fed Europe, economists talk about heatflation, the spectre of rising food prices as heatwaves and drought dent supply, increase spoilage and reduce nutritional value.

Cutting food waste and diversifying crops can help — but now is also the time to encourage the science of precision breeding to bloom. 

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